Sergi was sent down for 15 years for smuggling caviar. In prison he became a poet and now he laughs at the new Russiansby Vanora Bennett / February 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
On the shore of the Caspian Sea you can, if you know the right people, have a poacher’s breakfast: a caviar sandwich. The poacher will hack a slice off a white loaf and smear it with freshly caught sturgeon roe. He might wave the inch-thick sandwich in your face, laughing through gold teeth. “How much would this cost in London… Thousands! So go on, eat it. It’s good for you. It’s power food.”
All you have to do is bash a female sturgeon on the head, slit her open, wash the roe in salted water and strain the eggs. The caviar is ready before the fish stops flapping. My friend Sergei Bodagovsky could do it in just over two minutes, but he was the grand master of caviar poachers. In 1982, he was accused in a Soviet court of stealing four tons of caviar. He had made an illegal profit of half a million roubles-the equivalent, in those days, of 430 years’ wages.
Sergei keeps one grainy photograph of those times. There’s sunlight in it, and a dark wild boy with a beaky nose, on a beach, grinning. He is wearing ragged cut-offs. He has a cigarette in his mouth. In one hand is a knife, in the other a huge sturgeon.
Today the swagger has gone. Sergei was 28 when he was arrested. His friend Rudolf was tried too and condemned to death: a bullet in the brain. Sergei got off lightly with a 15-year sentence. “When they read out the verdict,” he told me when I met him, years later, “everyone in court gasped in horror.”
We were in his sister’s shabby flat in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan. Sergei is 46 now, careworn and fastidious, a little stooped, his voice filtered through bluish cigarette smoke. But the photo still made him grin. “Me, I’d been expecting execution,” he said. “So I sighed with relief.”
So much caviar, I said. Why had he taken the risk?
“Power and money,” he said. “In those days, I thought money was everything.”
Plenty of people still think that way in Dagestan. Life here is lived by the post-communist equation that money dishonestly acquired equals power. The legal economy is a shell. Regional cognac and carpet factories are at a standstill. But the streets are full of Mercedes, and a mysterious building boom has begun: fantasy mansions in the style of Walt Disney are springing up, with arched windows, jacuzzis, ten-foot-high garden walls and overwrought ironwork. No one yet knows who will move in. But everyone knows that a new elite is forming in the Soviet ruins.
Dagestan is a strip of land in Russia, east of Chechnya and west of the Caspian Sea. From there, illegally caught caviar is smuggled to the middle east and the west. The caviar trade is violent. When a building full of Russian border troops was blown up in 1996, killing 67 people, locals did not doubt that the attack was a warning from Dagestan’s caviar gangs. Since then scarcely a month has gone by without some violent death: a drive-by shooting, or a car bomb. Most victims are innocents, though Said Amirov, the mayor of Makhachkala, lost the use of his legs in the first of a series of annual assassination attempts against him in 1992 (Dagestani wags call him “our Roosevelt”).
Little of this appears in the local papers, so Makhachkala is full of rumours. Moscow newspapers report how the coast is overrun by gangs of poachers romantically known as “brotherhoods of the reeds.” But in Makhachkala no one believes this. They think that it is their own ministers’ trawlers harvesting as much caviar as they can carry.
the rules were different when Sergei started stealing caviar. In Soviet times, power didn’t come from making money. The communist party had a rigid hierarchy; everyone knew their place. Those near the top got perks which were the cashless equivalent of wealth: cars, dachas and food parcels containing delicacies such as chocolate and two-ounce cans of caviar. Even the cans were graded. Blue was beluga sturgeon, red was osyotr, yellow was sevruga.
Sergei’s family were nowhere near the top. His father mended telephones and his mother was a typesetter. Sergei went to technical college, not to university, and was convicted for brawling during military service. By his twenties he was married with two daughters to support.
He went to work for a fish factory in Astrakhan. It paid 100 roubles a month, enough for bread and sausage but not much more. He would steer his boat along the Caspian and up the Volga, picking up sturgeon caught by fishermen from collective farms. The fish was weighed and a fixed state price paid before the boat took the carcasses back to the factory.
Sergei loved the muscle and freedom of life on the water: sun-roughened skin, the click of bony sevruga snouts against metal as he hauled them on to the scales, and the wind that nearly knocked him down when he opened the throttle. He liked meals carved from the fish. He liked caviar breakfasts.
He spent the hot nights of his first summer on his bunk, reading. He listened to waves rippling, planks creaking-and rowing boats drawing alongside in the dark. “They were coming and going all night. It was all footsteps and whispers…” It was the fishermen returning to sell more fish and eggs, this time privately, illegally, and for much more money.
The next year, Sergei was promoted to inspector-or fish buyer. “At first, I never thought I’d steal,” he says now. “But then I saw that everyone was at it. I didn’t want to spend all my days in rags. I needed to feed the kids and dress properly.”
In a way, he had no choice. An inspector had to be on good terms with the police, the fishermen and the mean, hard-drinking types from the slums around the fish farms. That meant bending the law, softening people up with drinks and bribes.
But Sergei also found that he liked stealing. He liked hurrying fishermen to close the deal over a vodka in the shadows. He’d buy half the fish privately, at ten times the state price, and give an official receipt for the other half. Everyone was happy. Then Sergei would stay up all night with his two-man crew, harvesting the caviar. They stored it in milk churns sunk underwater on lines, filling four churns a night.
At dawn, Sergei would sell the caviar. He’d chug out to the cruise liners sailing down the Volga with their banquets and bands. “Do you need caviar?” he would shout. He charged half the state price, but still made a big profit. “They always said yes. I could sell as much as my conscience let me,” he says. “Everyone was at it, but no one sold as much as us. As Rudolf said: ‘What’s the difference, they’ll shoot you whether you take one ton or five.’ So we took five.”
Rudolf, 16 years older than Sergei, was an exotic charmer. He’d been a chef; he’d been in a band; he gambled, danced, told wonderful stories, and could shoot straight at any target, even when drunk. Impulsive and flamboyant, he was the king of thieves.
Rudolf bought two houses, three cars, a gun and some tsarist roubles. Sergei left his wife; there was too much high living to be done. The Astrakhan elite were now their clients: the police and the politicians. Moscow was 1,000 miles north, and the politicos felt safe with their grimy new friends. Sergei and Rudolf went to their dachas. They shared jokes and women.
But one former colleague, a fisherman called Boris, felt left out and resentful. He informed on his ex-partners in a letter to Brezhnev’s interior minister. To the terror of the town bosses, a commission came from Moscow to investigate.
Local politicians had everything to lose if they were named in Moscow as clients of the caviar thieves. They tiptoed away from the scandal, leaving Sergei and Rudolf-the outsiders-exposed.
Rudolf used to drop in to the police station as if it was home. “Everyone there was his friend, everyone ate his caviar. So when they said the police chief wanted to see him, he waltzed right in. ‘Hi, guys, what’s new?’ he said. But they were too scared to answer. There were six strangers in the chief’s office, with an arrest warrant and handcuffs.”
The day they came for Sergei was warm, with a hot wind. Sergei was on his boat, with sweating fishermen lugging their fish towards it. He was in an evil temper. He knew what to expect. He had champagne on ice.
When the official black Volga cars drew up, and his ex-friends trotted nervously down the jetty in their suits, Sergei came out.
“Drink?” he asked. No one answered. No one dared to approach. He poured a glass. “Seryog, come with us,” wheedled the men in suits. “What for? I’m going home, or perhaps I’ll throw myself off right here into the depths.”
Sergei smiles. “I kept them waiting for four hours … I’d have stabbed them if I’d had a knife. I suddenly realised they weren’t enforcing fair laws, only laws which protected them. They were legal criminals. And I didn’t want to lose my freedom. I was 28, and I loved my robber’s life. I wanted sea wind in my hair.
“But there was no choice. I gave myself up.”
The case took two years to come to court. Sergei saw that he would be shot unless he cooperated. He gave up his hidden bank books and pleaded guilty.
But Rudolf refused. When the trial opened he looked defiantly at the prosecutor-a man named Nikolai Chishiyev who’d been at his house more times than he could remember. Rudolf told the courtroom: “I will plead guilty only if the following people are put in the dock too.” In the hush that followed he listed 40 of Astrakhan’s most prominent bosses.
This was the most dangerous Soviet crime: exposing the hypocrisy of the authorities to public gaze. The judge ordered Rudolf’s words to be struck out.
“They read out Rudolf’s sentences for two hours,” Sergei says. “It was 15 years for this, 14 years for that. Then they got to the last charge, and the sentence was rasstrel-execution.”
“Rudolf didn’t react. He’d been taking notes. He was still writing. A cop came up with handcuffs and barked his name. ‘I’m listening,’ Rudolf said. ‘Handcuffs,’ the cop said. Rudolf said calmly: ‘Are you taking me to be shot right now?’ He looked at the judge. No one expected this. People react differently to the death sentence, hysterics, fainting, whatever. But Rudolf embarrassed the judge, who muttered ‘No.’
“‘So wait while I finish,’ Rudolf said. He went on writing. And when he’d finished, he went to the cells with his head held high.”
the beach on which Sergei grew up runs from one end of Dagestan to the other, 300 miles of pale sand scarred by rusty metal and giant sewage pipes. Today’s busy poachers don’t mind the ugliness. They’re pleased that day-trippers stay away.
They earn well. Umar, an ex-bank clerk, has seen his pay rise from $60 a month to $6,000. Magomed, a former engineer in a Soviet military factory, now earns $1,000 in two days, packing 150 pounds of stolen caviar into export jars. The boats are simple, but they track fish using computers. Magomed has gadgets galore: a machine for sealing the blue, red and yellow metal lids on to glass Russian jars, soldering equipment for silver cans labelled “Iranian caviar,” a steriliser.
Umar’s rule of thumb is that 100 pounds of fish should provide 15 pounds of caviar. He catches long-snouted sevruga weighing 30 pounds, and snub-nosed osyotr weighing up to 100 pounds. Rare beluga can weigh tons, but Umar says he’s never caught one.
The local police can be bribed, says Umar. If the more aggressive Russian border guards approach, he dumps his catch back into the sea. Magomed tops off each load of the canned caviar he takes to Makhachkala in his truck with vegetables.
“Tell the truth and I won’t punish you,” said the last policeman to stop him. “What’s under the onions?”
“Ah,” Magomed replied, passing over $10. “At the bottom of my truck, all you’ll find is bare boards.”
Laughing, the policeman waved him on.
Sturgeon stocks today are one third what they were in the 1970s. Soviet programmes for replenishing them are long forgotten. The World Wide Fund for Nature says that beluga, the scarcest sturgeon, is “poised on the brink of extinction.”
in prison, sergei existed on discipline; press-ups before reveille, silent hours at the stinking workshop or a hot cell shared with 100 others. He divorced his wife. He borrowed journals from the prison library and became absorbed in the political changes happening in the new Russia.
The new politics offered self-justification. He learned to argue that his theft had been benign, a Robin-Hood redistribution from party to people. He had paid more for caviar than the state offered, and sold for less than the state demanded. This was a crime under communism, but good business under capitalism. With hindsight, he cast himself as a “fighter” against an unjust regime.
He also started writing poetry. “I began to feel I had something to say. So I read less at night, but I wrote. I’d stay awake to be in that state when your body’s relaxed but your brain’s awake… you can catch thoughts. The lines just ran out. I’d write till five.”
The poems changed everything. His sister passed the manuscripts to a local newspaper. It published them without knowing that the author was in jail.
Publication triggered a wave of interest. It was 1991, and Sergei’s bitter verse perfectly matched the public mood on the eve of the Soviet collapse. Fan mail arrived in heaps. The national poet of Dagestan telephoned, demanding an introduction. When Sergei’s sister confessed that the poems were written by her brother, eight years into a 15-year jail sentence, Sergei became a prisoner of conscience. Every scrap of his work, however raw and self-pitying, was published and praised.
A public campaign took off, led by a Moscow group working to release “economic criminals.” The new president, Boris Yeltsin, signed his pardon in August 1992. Sergei didn’t believe it when they woke him and told him to go to the governor. But by four o’clock that afternoon he was leaving prison with a second-hand suit and the train fare home.
No one told his family that he’d been released years early. When he walked into his mother’s kitchen, on her 60th birthday, she fainted.
Soon after Sergei got out of jail, a married doctor called Lyuda was so entranced by his poems that she left her husband and three children to live with him. They married and had a baby son.
I first met them in July 1997, in an empty flat with a heap of suitcases against one wall. Lyuda and the baby were emigrating to the US. Sergei was staying behind. Because of his criminal record, the US embassy had refused him a visa.
Sergei was philosophical. Afterwards he moved across town to his sister’s flat. His mother and sister share a pull-out bed in the television room. There is nothing in Sergei’s room but a single bed, a tape recorder and Lyuda’s letters from Houston.
Sergei is treated with exaggerated respect in Makhachkala, as someone who suffered unjustly and escaped by a miracle. He enjoys his reputation: back at the Smolensk Penitentiary, he says with a little smile, many prisoners have started writing poetry in the hope that they too will get their sentences cut.
But he is a monkish oddity in a place and time where money and power, the things he once wanted so much, are uppermost in people’s minds. Sergei is no longer interested. He has published a book of prison verse, but he gives the copies away. He works at a local paper, but only as a typesetter. He dresses modestly. He often forgets to eat.
Mostly he sings. He’s found his voice, and is recording an album of his poems set to music. He plans to name it after the last words of warders to prisoners: “Get your things and go.”
He doesn’t fish any more, although he still knows both how to gut a sturgeon and how to gentle one by stroking its head. He has eaten the rarest of delicacies, tsar’s caviar, the pale eggs of albino sturgeon. He talks with love about the fish-their spring migrations down the Volga, the big beluga under the ice in February, the bream, wild carp, and the sevruga and osyotr sturgeon. And he talks with sorrow about the war on the sea today.
“Everyone’s massacring the fish-ministers, lowlifes, Azerbaijanis in big boats. There’s never been anything like this-people trawling in military boats in a sea so festooned with nets that the fish can’t escape. Soon the fish will exist only in our memories.”
In the evenings, when the wind blows, he sits in his white room playing his half-finished tape and trying to find a way to join his family.
Before leaving, I asked if he’d help me choose some good caviar. “Oh no,” he said. “I never go near it any more. Every now and then I eat a very tiny bit of fish, so as not to lose the taste altogether. But caviar makes me sick to my soul.” n